A friend from the Midwest writes to ask how we are doing, back here "in the land of Bonnie Ronnie and Fancy Nancy." And the answer is, well, mixed.
For the first time in years Washington has a president it really likes, one who clearly relishes the role and is good at it to boot. Great issues about the size and nature of government are being debated as they rarely have been in recent decades, and politicians of all persuasions are being forced to reexamine their beliefs. On each side of the party aisle comes welcome evidence of recognition that the old political bromides and approaches aren't relevant to the 1980s and beyond. After stumbling around in search of a major unifying foreign affairs theme, the president has demonstrated breadth of vision and generosity of spirit in addressing the overriding world issue, reducing nuclear weapons in the cause of peace.
With the nation entering what promises to be a severe recession, doubts are rising about the effectiveness--and fairness--of the administration's crucial economic recovery program. These have been dramatically reinforced by the embarrassing disclosures of President Reagan's budget director, David A. Stockman, who is the principal spokesman, salesman and, in many respects, architect of that program. Despite the president's public assurances that all is well within his White House roof, that his political team forms one big happy group, signs of the administration's disarray and disagreement continue to surface with cumulative damaging effect. His presidency stands in danger of falling into the fatal trap that beset Jimmy Carter's at about the same point in office--of creating the impression he is not in control of his own house. Even before the series of public controversies involving such top presidential aides as Stockman, Secretary of State Alexander M. Haig Jr., and national security adviser Richard V. Allen, the most recent Gallup Poll showed the president dropping to the same popularity point as Carter after a comparable time in the White House.
Reasons enough for mixed reviews, but there are others. One in particular deserves, but seldom gets, serious public attention.
The issue involves public service.
In the congressional struggle to reach consensus over the government operations spending bill the question of pay for top federal civil servants was debated. Once again the Senate voted to lift a freeze on salaries for senior U.S. employes that was imposed two years ago.
This issue goes to the heart of a serious problem throughout government. For some time, salaries of key officials in the three branches have fallen dramatically behind the corresponding managerial groups in private business. In most cases, Congress has not allowed annual increases called for in a salary cost-of-living act for top officials, placing them significantly behind what they had been promised legally.
Recent months have resulted in an acceleration of the rapid flow of talent out of the government. Earlier, a special commission studying executive government salaries found a direct link between low pay and increasing difficulties in attracting and keeping outstanding people for top U.S. positions. The freeze on top pay compounded those problems. As the commission put it: "The resulting compression of salaries has created the anomalous situation in which up to seven tiers of management are now being paid identical salaries."
This fall the government released another study on attitudes in the ranks of its top career employes in the Senior Executive Service. More disturbing signs of deteriorating morale were exposed. As one official quoted in the report said:
"The result is tragic and in good conscience I could not recommend to young professionals that they join the government."
Those words don't begin to convey the bitterness that permeates the federal work force. Talk to officials today and you'll hear repeated references about "their disastrous pay situation," as one person said. They speak of "a breach of faith" and "a betrayal of trust" on the part of Congress toward them.
Problems of pay at the top can be remedied, but the problems of government go beyond salary scales at whatever level. Unfortunately, the record of this latest administration has left even deeper resentment on the part of the career service.
Morale throughout government has hit rock bottom, and for good reason.
For years government employes have taken a battering. Assaults on the sins of the bureaucracy, real and imagined, have become politically ever more popular and profitable. Political leaders have led onslaught after onslaught on bureaucrats. Repeatedly, bureaucrats have heard themselves characterized as no good and the way they work as part of a process of widespread fraud and abuse. The result has been to dampen motivation and inhibit performance.
These attacks have come from the top. Two presidents in a row have expressed open contempt for the bureaucracy, and Ronald Reagan continues to speak that way.
Just a week ago, in an interview with Westinghouse Broadcasting Co., Reagan repeated his old campaign rhetoric about public servants. Bureaucrats "far down in the permanent structure of government," he said, have been one of the greatest frustrations of his presidency. "They've been here before you got here and they'll be here after you're gone and they're not going to change the way they're doing things."
The sad part is he doesn't seem to recognize that those kinds of words make it even harder to change things for the better. Or that he, especially, has the gifts to help bring about more positive attitudes.
Since John F. Kennedy was murdered 18 years ago today, the concept of public service in America has been steadily eroded. However history ultimately judges that abbreviated presidency, its most important ingredient was an attitude--a sense of hope, a striving for excellence in public life. The years since have brought a succession of failed or flawed presidencies and a record of public scandal and betrayal of public trust. In their wake has been growing cynicism about public servants, and public service.
Reagan has the best chance in a generation to transform those negatives into positives. Not since the Kennedy era has a president inspired such a feeling of good will toward him. Not since then has there been a better time to instill greater appreciation for a philosophy of honorable public service.
In Reagan's Washington, the reverse appears to be happening.
Bonnie Ronnie has not capitalized on his greatest asset, his own personal popularity. Until he does, his reviews will continue to be mixed.